Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Admitting to the Vanity

In much of the wedding world, it's assumed that the bride will do her damnedest to look stunningly beautiful, to like a "princess" on "her special day."  We've been conditioned to expect the whole room's collective gasp when the bride walks down the aisle, resplendent in her perfect white dress glory.  Her husband-to-be awaits at the end of the aisle, holding back tears upon first seeing his beautiful about-to-be-wife on their wedding day*.

The "first look" concept seems a bit antiquated to me, since presumably there have been thousands of looks since you first met (although I do understand the emotional build up and release upon seeing each other that day). Also, I'm hoping he thinks you're pretty darn awesome already, or he wouldn't be marrying you, so dressing up to impress him specifically for the wedding shouldn't make a smidgen of difference in whether he says "I do". So what is it, exactly, that has us all (myself included) expending so much valuable brainspace and dollars on creating an appropriately stunning first look moment? 

It's a complicated answer, but I think it has a lot to do with the unspoken subtext of gender roles: He's marrying well/successfully if she is beautiful armcandy, and she's marrying well if he has $$ to support her or some such BS. Why else would we subject ourselves to a seriously expensive dresses, hair, makeup, manicures, facials, accessories, and weight loss regimens (with our husband-to-be's support) if underneath it all we weren't grasping somewhat for that "first look" public approval moment? Why else would "bride style" be such a magazine/blog/personal obsession when men's style issues are only discussed in passing  (tux vs suit, dark vs seersucker, boutonnieres, etc.) We've clearly elevated the importance of female attractiveness in a way that has nothing to do with the wedding or marriage as we chase that collective gasp.

I battle with my unspoken need for superficial approvals everyday and the wedding is just messing with my head even more.  I'm already more nervous about the wedding and the pictures than I feel comfortable expressing to friends in real life.  I want to be the badass feminist and say eff-it.  But... I'm not going to.  I'm going  to consciously choose to take part in much of d*mn prettifying madness, including the parts that go well beyond my standard comfort zone of makeup, heels, and some killer accessories. I'm going to feel conflicted about it the entire time, but I'm going to do it anyhow. 

You might be asking why.  Heck, I'm asking why.  And the only answer I can come up with isn't very satisfying:  It's because I want to feel pretty.  I hate myself for this, but I just want to feel spectacularly pretty for one day.  Lots of women might want to tell me that it's perfectly okay and normal to want to be pretty on your wedding day but, while I think it's "normal", I'm not sure if it's okay for me.  It goes against my very core values to chase unattainable physical ideals and against my financial values to spend several months rent in the pursuit of one day's attractiveness.

Oh, it's not several months rent, you say?  Here's the math:
  • Dress: $1000 for dress and alterations, if I'm lucky
  • Hair and Makeup: $400 onsite, if I'm lucky
  • Shoes: $100
  • Hair flower: $35
  • Jewelery: $100
  • Facial: $100
  • Mani pedi: $35
  • Teeth whitening: $600
  • Boot camp, so I actually stick with my exercise goals: $200
  • Weight Watchers: $40 per month for 6 months = $240
Total: $2810**

You can quibble about the pricing and about whether list list is strictly wedding related (I've been saving to get my teeth whitened since I quit smoking, I pay for Weight Watchers anyhow, I try to get facials every six-nine months because my skin is problematic, I get mani/pedis once every few months, I've done boot camp before to kick start a fitness program, I can wear cute shoes again, I can sell the dress and recoup a few hundred bucks, etc) but the point is that I'm seriously considering all of these, with an eye to the single d*mn wedding day.  I KNOW it's effing insane.  I'm an earnest, analytical feminist and have an intense hatred for the chasing-youth-and-photoshopped-beauty ideal our culture has elevated in recent years, and yet here I am with a ridiculous price list for things I want that have nothing to do with a wedding or a marriage or my love with J.  I have no problem with any of these things on their own (notice that I participate in quite a few of the prettifying rituals on a regular basis myself) but I have a real problem with them all getting wrapped up into the image of a pretty bride.

It's not just me feeling these pressures - it's the whole darn issue with what a bride "should" be. When I casually mentioned to my mother that I was considering DIY hair and makeup because of cost, she (to put it mildly) freaked out and offered to pay for everything.  So it's not just me, it's my normally sensible mother who is also willing to drop $$$ to help her daughter look beautiful specifically for the wedding day. 

I've often said J would be happy if I walked down the aisle in a burlap sack. He'd be a bit shocked and his grandparents would be scandalized, but he'd still be grinning like a fiend when it came time to say the vows.

Miu Miu Pleated Burlap Sack Dress at Net-a-Porter. No, really, it's a $1200 burlap sack dress

So I know none of this matters.  I could buy a $100 white dress from a department store and be done with it.  In fact, if I asked, J would probably rate me at about an 8 on his attractiveness scale, regardless of what wedding dress I wear or makeup I apply. Even when I'm at my grossest he tells me I'm the prettiest woman he's ever been with.  I hear him, I believe he's being honest, and I adore the compliments.  However, I've never internalized them. (On a good day, I put myself around a 5 or 6.  And there's nothing effortless about my 5/6 level beauty.  It's hard earned via makeup, straightening irons and a lot of note-taking about flattering fits during What Not To Wear.)  I've always been the smart girl, not the pretty girl, and it feels like my wedding day is a huge chance to shine as the smart and pretty girl.

I'm not happy about my self confidence issues and I'm not happy about elevating superficial aspects of the wedding with such a massive price tag.  But I'm nervous about photos. And I'm nervous about being the center of attention.  And I'm nervous about people turning around, hoping for a collective gasp moment and getting left with "meh."  And it would be really nice to not get "meh" for once, and apparently that's worth a pretty hefty price tag for me.  It would also be nice to finally have some great photos or me and us (generally, I resort to class-clown antics and make silly faces in my photos so people don't notice how average-looking I can be in snapshots.)

What's the point of this post?  I'm not exhorting anyone to give up their wedding day prettifying but I do think we should be willing to look more closely at why we make our wedding decisions instead of just assuming all brides should aim for drop-dead-gorgeous beauty.  I'm not entirely comfortable with the answers I've come up with for myself, but I'm determined to take ownership of my superficiality by finding ways to be more comfortable with it (and the purchases that come along with it).  This might mean ethical purchases and a simpler aesthetic look overall, and it certainly means prioritizing items that I already value (like Weight Watchers and generally healthy living) over items that have no long-term value (teeth whitening). Instead of going for a princess-transformative-ballgown look, I'm aiming for simple elegance. I want to be me, but I also want to be my best version of me, and I'm having a difficult time not crossing the line into full brideland costuming. Putting the prices down on a list helps me gain some perspective on the insanity, but the desire to be "pretty" is still very much there. Besides stepping away from the pretty magazine and blog images, how has everyone else managed these internal conflicts?

*Please excuse the hetero-normative wedding description, but I think the first look issues are predominantly based in gender role questions.  It doesn't mean that female appearance issues don't affect lesbian couples, but I think they're rooted in the male/female relationship construct.

**Yes, this number is completely absurd.  And no, I'm probably not going to get everything on this list.  But the point is that I've seriously considered it.  


  1. LA, really, give yourself a break, sister! :)Yes, wedding days and wedding industry and bridal style etc are all hopelessly fraught with gender stereotypes and financial guilt and societal evils. Totally. But it's okay to want to be pretty. Really: it's not a sin, it's not a crime, and it's not something you have to defend to anyone. It's a shame that the kind of care that you want to take of yourself a) makes you feel bad about how much you're investing in yourself; and b) makes you feel like a bad feminist. But srsly, consider your list: things like get your nails done and get facials and going to boot camps ultimately make you feel good. They keep you healthy and make you feel your best b/c you feel you look your best; that sounds like a worthwhile investment to me. And what's wrong with wanting to be healthy and feel good, especially on your wedding day? Finally, consider this: more than the gasp you hope will come from him, or the gasp you hope will come from the other witnesses, imagine how great you will feel inside yourself, the unmistakable, brilliant light that will shine from within you, because you've relaxed into the part of yourself that wants to take care of yourself, that wants to do what it takes to feel your own brand of pretty so she can feel at peace, not so she can feel like she passes muster.
    I understand your struggle, really I do. I've chosen a dress made in great, albeit clingy, fabric, and right now there's a gym war inside me. Huge yogini, but wondering if I need something more, and resent that I'm even wondering it. I get it. I've been trying to look at and acknowledge the things I like, the things that look like me. Sometimes (surprise) it's lacey and feminine; most times (no surprise) it's simple, straight-lined, unadorned. I've been giving thought to how I like to dress regularly, what features I like to call attention to, what kind of accessories I like to hang off my body, what kind of shoes I like to wear. The thing I'm learning is that "pretty" is subjective: my brand of pretty invovlves accesories made of things that come out of the earth, I think, which includes wood and shell and bone and yes, diamond. But some women are about the feathers and the flowers. Some are about big and poufy, some are about short, hell, some even about pantsuits. But each of us has to find what makes us feel pretty, not what some consultant says is pretty. Because ultimately, when we feel pretty, we look pretty. So give yourself permission to want to be pretty already. It's not the worst thing in the world, you're being responsible about it, and ultimately when you own not just "your superficiality" but you own all of the expressions of your womanhood, even the softer, girlier, more feminine ones, you'll radiate. You'll be brilliant and gorgeous.

  2. Jess - I'm a huge fan of healthy balance (which tends to lead to more general attractiveness) and have no problem with reaching to achieve "pretty" (I wear makeup, heels, carefully chosen accessories, get my mani-pedis, etc and I certainly don't think it makes me any less feminist.) HOWEVER, weddings are a whole different beast and have a whole different set of pressures associated with their pretty. And frankly, the definition of pretty associated with weddings, and with the products and services we're "supposed" to buy to achieve that, is what's bothersome to me. I want to be beautiful on my wedding day, but much of that will probably be genuine internal radiance and will have nothing to do with how much weight I do (or don't) lose. I resent the implications that pretty brides are size 4, white, diamond-bedecked, white dress wearing, perfectly polished hair/makeup creations and I resent the sheer amount of $ and time and effort we're expected to put into it for Our Special Day. I also resent the effort it's taking to buck the trend and define my own needs here.

    That's my battle here, not whether I want to achieve my own personal pretty. You're right, we have to step away from the outside expectations of what's pretty and rock our own pantsuits, feathers and diamonds. But for some reason, that seems to be more difficult with weddings than, say, with Wednesday morning attire.

  3. oh my god we have so much to talk about this saturday. i'm not even going to start to write anything. i'll just say that this a wonderfully well-thought out and important piece that all brides should read. can't wait to meet you finally!

  4. I have no awe-inspiring wisdom for you. Only here saying that I understand where you're coming from. I consider myself a feminist, even though I've written four posts about shoes, too many on dresses, and a really long one about makeup (with pictures included,) because I too want to be/feel pretty and avoid the 'meh' comments as much as possible.
    Whenever someone asks how much my dress cost, I feel guilty because it cost close to our monthly rent, and I don't want anyone to label me as that crazy money-grabbing bride who needs everything to be perfect on the "happiest day of her life". Psshaw.
    I think the fact that you acknowledge the pressures from society to be "perfect" for "your groom" already makes you pretty awesome in my book. I could use a good teeth whitening, I have tea stains.

  5. I think it is hard to balance wanting to be pretty (as was said above, totally healthy thing to want) and pathologizing that want/need. And like you say, this is something that we struggle with as women every day, weddings just exacerbate it times 19907476908. Add to that the emphasis put on effortless beauty; that we should look perfect without looking like we're trying (and that it's seen as unbecoming to obsess over looks/weight/style), and life gets even more confusing. You're supposed to do all of the above but not look like you did it. And develop an upper addiction somewhere along the way to manage all of it, I guess.

    I also think that it is normal to want to mark an important temporal transition physically; to look one's best, to look different/special/like you have marked yourself as this being a "significant" day. It is meaningful that we don't want to wear burlap. But how can we focus on the meaning of this stuff (which I see as positive) and not get drawn into social norms. (Think of it like the high holidays--there are two reasons people dress up for them. One is to "see and be seen" in shul; another is to mark the specialness of the occasion. I am always very conscious of doing it for the second reason, which I see as significant and legitimate, which is a very different way of dressing up--less diamonds, for example!)

    Anyway, I think vocalizing all of this, and yes, talking about when we do, and don't, buy into it, is important. I wrote about not buying into the weight loss stuff, but I still had my makeup professionally done, despite the fact that I literally do not wear a lick of makeup on a day to day basis (and my "dressed up" look never consists of more than mascara and lipstick). We all buy into it, and we are doing each other, as thoughtful women, a disservice by pretending we don't.

    As I wrote on my blog, I tried to aspire to "fancy me" when dealing with the aesthetics thing, as opposed to "different" or "fantasy" me. For me, that was a good way of drawing the line between a healthy and meaningful concern with appearance, and a pathological, consumerist one. I am sure you will find this balance for yourself!

  6. As this is the first time I've visited your blog I have to say "oh hon!!" (in a totally not patronizing way).

    I completely feel you on this one. As someone who fits a certain stereotype of "beauty" (yes. I"m tall, I'm thin) even I feel the rest assured it's not just anyone with a few pounds to lose. While I do think there is societal pressure I don't think you should consider yourself a bad feminist for wanting to be pretty. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel good (and I think those two go hand and hand)...especially on your wedding day. When I go to any special occasion I take a bit more time and care on my hair, makeup, clothes....because that day is SPECIAL...and on your wedding day you will be marrying the person you love most in the world and making a lifetime commitment to that person in front of however many friends and family...and that is SO don't beat yourself up for anything you're doing...and quite frankly I wouldn't count the things like weight watchers, boot camp and tooth whitening as wedding expenses. I think the tooth whitening is a reward for quitting a habit that was damaging, while the weight watchers and boot camps are tools to work towards a healthy body which leads to a healthy mind. Exercise boosts endorphins among a number of other benefits that will leave you feeling more relaxed, able to cope with wedding stress and with a glow....and eating right is one of the most important things you can do for your body. Aside from that all you did was put together a fantastic outfit for a special day and put on your best face as you walk down the aisle towards a man who you know loves you makeup free and in a burlap sack.

  7. T-bone - It's not the prettifying (or healthy living) I have an issue with, it's the extreme wedding expectations about the *type* of pretty and the assumptions about reasonableness of the effort/cost to achieve it for brides. It's definitely a bride-specific mania and it's something I find myself easily slipping into if I don't catch myself. It's one thing to say "Yes, I want to look spectacular because it's a very special occasion" and it's another to assume that the *way* to feel spectacular is to buy a designer dress, hire a makeup artist, have your hair done, and freak out about weight loss. I have no value judgment about making these purchases/decisions, but I think we need to focus on the real reasons *why* we make these purchases and *how* they really add to the specialness of the day. We'll each have different answers and comfort levels about it, but it's definitely a conversation worth having.

  8. Before I forget - if you brush your teeth with just straight up baking soda, instead of toothpaste, you will be amazed by how white your teeth will be. It will tasty a little salty, but not too bad and it does an amazing job for like $3. AND your teeth are clean. I have never smoked, but I do drink (a lot) of (black) tea and kept getting yelled at by the dentist until my mom tipped me off to the Baking Soda trick.

    But other than that, I feel you. I want the gasp. And, I want the look on his face that he gets when I've worked harder than usual to look nice. I've accepted this.

    What I'm having more trouble with is that I also kind of want the fairy tale princess, poofy dress, sparkly shoes Dorthy-meets-Cinderella-meets-Vera-Wang-transformative-ballgown look. And then, I'm afraid that if I own that and go that route, I'll lose myself in the tulle. Alternately, I'm afraid that if I don't, I'll regret it. There's a balance in there somewhere, I'm sure. Let me know when you find it.

    Thanks for this post.

  9. oh ya, I totally hear ya on the pressure and other people's reactions. My mother took several months to come around to the fact that our wedding will be...non-traditional.
    I know that when I tell her I'm not getting my hair professionally done (I hate it every single time) she will have a moment... but then she can deal. I am so tired of people telling me when to get a facial, of taking advantage of the "bride" and saying: well you NEED this product, you're wedding is only a year away- start prepping your skin now!

    at the same time, I bought a dress that is too much money... because it's made in Canada, but a Canadian designer and with sustainable materials. And I felt pretty.

    It is frustrating the reactions when I blurt out things like: "hah, ya I'm wearing flip flops- most comfy shoe EVER" or "Nope I don't have any colours, pretty sure her dress will match with my white one..."

    people take this stuff so SERIOUSLY. like there's rules to a wedding. Ours is going to be a party- a celebration of our love. :) No rules in that!

  10. I followed today's post to here :) Another great post.

    It is hard, all of this.

    For me a big part of it is the pictures. When else do we spend that kind of money on pics of ourselves? It seems worthy of primping for.

    On the other hand, I nearly completely abandoned weight loss plans. I was initially flipping out and feeling insecure, a road I've been down many times before. And I decided, I cannot let myself feel like that leading up to my wedding.

    That is not what this is about, and I will not be insecure me on my wedding day and miss out on being as radiant as I am when I'm happy and not distracted by thoughts of insecurity.

    I was looking through old pictures of myself, across a nearly 25lb weight range and various styles, and hands down I consistently look beautiful in the pictures from times that I know I was feeling free and happy and not insecure. That I can achieve on my wedding day, regardless of my weight.

    Anyway, this turned long!


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